Education is key to opportunity in America. For a student born to a family of modest means, college can be transformational, offering social and economic mobility that, in turn, benefits society at large.
But our education system doesn’t always serve that promise. Many students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have access to the most prestigious colleges and universities. This is in part because the cost of attendance is so high, but also because highly selective admissions, which look for students with rich extracurricular lives and high test scores, tend to produce classes composed largely of the children of the wealthy.
A key question, then, is how can we ensure that our elite colleges and universities serve students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, as opposed to those from privileged upbringings, students who would have done well anyway?
The editors of Forbes magazine announced last week a new college rankings methodology that places more emphasis on access and outcomes for low-income students and others. The result? Public universities did much better than in traditional rankings. UC Berkeley rose to the top spot, the first time this honor has gone to a public school. Seven public universities landed in the top 25, while Harvard fell to seventh place.
The notion that colleges and universities should be evaluated based on a broader standard of access and economic mobility is a crucial one that policy makers, governmental leaders and higher education institutions themselves must embrace, and fund, if we are to stop income inequality from ossifying into permanent hierarchy.
The share of national income going to the bottom half of the wage distribution has fallen by more than one-third since 1970, while the share going to the top 1% has nearly doubled – average income in the top 1% is now over 80 times that in the bottom half. As the top has pulled away, it has become ever harder for students not born wealthy to succeed.
Top public colleges and universities are our key economic engine for upward mobility. As Forbes magazine points out, public universities like Berkeley are more affordable, provide a world-class education and are more accessible (in terms of admissions) to many more underserved students compared to private elites.
“Even if, like Harvard, they (elite privates) promise to pay full freight for the low-income applicants they accept,” the Forbes editors write, “do they take enough disadvantaged students to make that promise meaningful? UC Berkeley does a much better job at this than does Harvard. At Berkeley, 27% of undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants, aimed at helping low- and moderate-income students pay for college. At Harvard, by contrast, the share of Pell students is just 12%.”
Indeed, research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty (formerly of UC Berkeley, and working with a team that included two Berkeley faculty members) and others has shown that public institutions like UC Berkeley play an outsize role in supporting intergenerational income mobility, moving many more students from the bottom of the income distribution to the top than the elite privates.
Chetty’s research also found that less elite public institutions — non-flagship campuses of the University of Texas, along with California State University campuses and California community colleges — received high upward mobility scores, based on the fraction of a school’s student body who are bottom-to-top success stories. Ivy League and other elite private colleges scored more poorly. Students from families in the bottom income quintile do well at elite private schools…if they get in. But because so few do, they make up a relatively small portion of the student body at those institutions.
Extensive evidence demonstrates that high quality higher education leads to enormous earnings increases and also delivers spillovers for more than just the students involved: Each young adult who is sent to college makes his or her neighbors and co-workers more productive as well.
Unfortunately, we have not added capacity at public colleges and universities nearly quickly enough to keep up with demand. For-profit institutions have grown to fill the gap, but the evidence indicates that they do not offer the same opportunity, often leaving their students without useful credentials but with mountains of debt.
It is significant that a publication such as Forbes has recognized what so many of us in the public policy sphere have been researching and advocating for, for some time. Now it is time for our governmental institutions to embrace this concept and take appropriate action. They must provide sufficient funding and resources to enable leading public universities to play an even larger role in educating all students, including those from low income and diverse backgrounds.
Funding for public colleges must expand at every level — especially community colleges, which are badly underfunded, but also in terms of greater access to prestigious four-year colleges such as the University of California. This is our best path to creating more intergenerational opportunity and enriching our society as a whole.
Jesse Rothstein is chancellor’s professor of Public Policy and Economics at UC Berkeley and faculty director of the California Policy Lab at the university.